Jonathan Blum: The Usual Uncertainties

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Q&A with Claudia Acevedo and Jonathan Blum.

Could you talk about the importance of Florida and Los Angeles, two places featured prominently in your stories, to the Jewish community and to you as a writer?

I grew up in Miami in a fairly observant Conservative Jewish home. I went to a Jewish day school through sixth grade, and my family belonged to a young, tight-knit synagogue, which was at the center of my social world for years. My high school job was helping kids prepare for their Bar Mitzvahs. When I took a step back from practicing Judaism, at 18, I also took a step back from the Jewish community. I began to identify with artists as the group I principally belonged with.

“The Kind of Luxuries We Felt We Deserved,” which I wrote in my late 20s,was the first story I set in Florida where I thought I had gotten the place right. Afterwards, I wrote many other things set in Florida, but, as with “Luxuries,” it was the Florida of my imagination, not a Florida anyone could, strictly speaking, visit. In Los Angeles, where I have lived for most of my adult life, I occupy a pretty marginal place in the Jewish community. I lead a private and not especially religious life. Of course, Jewish books, culture, history, and people remain very important to me. Much of my reading (lately it’s been Jan Gross and Aharon Appelfeld) has Jewish subject matter. I also tend to write about characters I have some kind of love for, and Jewish characters keep surfacing and re-surfacing in that way.

Would you say setting acts as a character in your stories, too? If so, in which ways?

For me, setting plays a big role in a story. Through setting, characters are given a world and a relationship to that world; the world may impinge on the characters or nourish them, push them to action or push them to leave. I tried to use the physical setting of Miami in “Roger’s Square Dance Bar Mitzvah”—the storms, the heat, the housing development, the synagogue—to bring out who the characters were and what the story was exploring. A story has to take place somewhere, and the stronger the reader’s sense of where it’s set, the better. The reader, it seems to me, wants to feel as though the fiction writer has thought deeply about how the characters interact with their physical and moral environment, wants to feel that the writer has a very particular, very developed sense of the setting, even if the place goes unnamed and the setting is drawn almost entirely from the writer’s imagination.

Your endings tend to be open-ended, quiet. What draws you to them, specifically in The Usual Uncertainties stories?

Perhaps I’m partial to open endings because I believe in giving characters open-ended lives. I believe that people have choices at any given moment about how they’re going to behave. I don’t write characters who are fated to act only one way, who don’t have agency in determining how their lives go. Of course, characters who are fated to act a certain way—enviously, despotically—can be extremely compelling. But I don’t write fiction that way. An envious or despotic character in one of my stories is also bound to act many other ways. Characters, to me, are like thousand-sided objects. In a good story, we never fully grasp the characters’ complexity, but we intuit who they are based on what we know, and we leave the story feeling that the mystery of them has been explored.  

I also value intimacy, which may account for the quiet endings. The narrator of “Dignity Shores” has a job that brings her one emergency after another, all manners of crisis, which she handles expertly. But in the quietness of the story’s ending she focuses on how she lifted her dying husband’s spirits before he crossed over. I might have ended by having her enumerate the many troubles she and her husband had, which, to some extent, she does. But that’s not what she remembers at the end. In the last part of the last sentence, she remembers going to the cemetery alone and buying her and her husband side-by-side burial plots so that he will die knowing they will stay together. This is as much intimacy as she is capable of; there is a poignancy to her limitations.

“Apples and Oranges” was appropriately set during the Baby Scoop Era.  Does your interest in a particular historical moment or event call you to write a story, or does the research usually happen after you have an idea for one?

With “Apples and Oranges,” I started with the inner life of Herm, as he drives this unwanted Gentile baby home with him to give to his in-laws to adopt. I was exploring his thought life before I settled on the date for the action. I chose 1952, in part, because it was an apt year for him to be doing what he’s doing: finding these unwanted babies in the countryside and placing them in childless Jewish homes in Philadelphia, thereby replenishing in a very small way the world’s Jewish population after the Holocaust.

Once I chose Christmas Eve, 1952, I immersed myself not only in that moment but also in the prior years, decades, century that had given rise to that moment.

Sometimes a public event does call me to write a story. One day, I was in California reading an article on the Los Angeles Times website about the mayor of Miami. He had just been jailed on battery charges for allegedly striking his wife on the head with a terra-cotta teapot. One of his young daughters had called 911. Suddenly, I found my face covered in tears. Once I composed myself, I began working on the story that eventually became “Boca.”

You play around with form and expectations in stories like “Weekly Status Report” and “Panels.” Do you think subject matter calls for a specific form, or do you decide on a structure and mold the story to fit it?

I am someone who loves form. In “Weekly Status Report,” the story is told in the form of a weekly Scrabble club newsletter, written by the director of the club, that is distributed to members of the club. This form limits what the director can say, but within those limitations, opportunities exist. He may not be able to state his true feelings about Sue Kararuk, but his true feelings manage to seep through, or we can infer them. Also, he keeps brushing up against the limits of the form. As a longtime director of the club, he has a strong sense of how to speak and not speak in the newsletter, and hence of how to commemorate Sue’s life. In the world of competitive Scrabble, you are what your rating is. You are the words you have played and the words you have not seen. So that is how you are remembered. That and by who you married and had children with and founded a new club with.

I started “Weekly Status Report” because I was interested in the ways that we talk about death in situations where we don’t normally talk about death—situations where we go precisely to avoid thinking about death. Scrabble is a kind of sport. We play sports and follow sports to not think about death. We think instead about the rules of the sport and the accomplishments of the players. How do you talk about the death of someone you cared about within the confinements of the language of sport?

With “Panels,” the form involved length. I composed all ten panels using 12-point Cambria type on single-spaced Microsoft Word pages, and no panel was allowed to be more than one page. Also, with the exception of “[What can she say to Jean],” in which the main character is conspicuously alone, the panels are all portraits of couples. Panels are an ancient art form. They are small oil paintings on wood that originated in Greece around 700 B.C.E. Many of the earliest surviving panels are portraits. I love series, which are a kind of form, and I set out to write a series in which the characters in each panel are different but what they go through is comparable.

So much of the book deals with memory, both the characters’ and their ancestors’. Could you talk about its role in the collection?

I wasn’t aware when I was writing the stories that they dealt a lot with memory. With “The White Spot,” yes. Memory takes center stage in that story. The boy ends up performing a feat of memory, at least in part to please his father, who would not be capable of accomplishing the same feat. The father also wants to confront the dying Hungarian woman with the facts of his mother’s life in Hungary, facts from forty years earlier, which the son is the very careful guardian of.

How a person grows up and what he learns from older people will tell you a lot about who he becomes. Perhaps for that reason, I put at least two generations of characters, if not three, in many of these stories, and family relationships—both immediate and extended—are often explored. And even in stories like “A Certain Light on Los Angeles” and “Roger’s Square Dance Bar Mitzvah,” where characters are trying to get away from their families or upbringing, they often cannot manage to forget where they come from. Jeeranun Suparat, for example, wants to escape her lifelong responsibilities to her parents—and later husband—in Thailand, but when we meet her in L.A., she has not forgotten about them. She is on the run in order to protect her hard-won freedom.